Analysis: Egypt’s floundering revolution

The Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal Wafd party say they will boycott the November 28 election unless emergency laws are repealed.

Protesters in Tahrir Square 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Protesters in Tahrir Square 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
The political storm brewing in Egypt is threatening the revolution.
Though there is open warfare between the Muslim Brotherhood, advocating a religious regime for the new Egypt, and the secular parties fighting for a secular model, both sides are united against the current electoral law as well as the timetable for voting set down by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
RELATED:Egypt’s presidential hopefuls push for earlier electionsBoycott looms as Egyptian elections near
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the liberal Wafd party say they will boycott the November 28 parliamentary elections unless the emergency laws are repealed.
The Mubarak regime crushed every political party bar its own, and there was no political or economic debate; the Egyptians were thus ill prepared to deal with the new situation and the dozens of parties – old and new – competing for their vote.
Eight months into the revolution, no party has been able to propose a coherent program of economic and political reform. The Muslim Brothers, who are well organized and can boast of a solid political and social infrastructure throughout the country, have nothing to offer beyond the institution of an Islamic regime which the majority of the people do not want. The movement’s leaders are making vague and contradictory statements in order to hide their true intentions – having the Koran for a constitution and Shari’a for a judicial system – but the fact is that the only difference between their program and that of al-Qaida is that – so far – they want to implement it by nonviolent means.
There are many self-proclaimed presidential candidates, but none with the kind of charisma which could sway the crowds. Former Arab League head Amr Moussa claims to be the most popular.
This might have been true in the past, but not anymore. He is too much a man of the old regime to convince the people that he could lead the country to a brighter future.
Returning to Egypt after 12 years abroad, Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize winner, has not been able to develop his support base.
Then there are a number of former army officers, retired judges and Islamic figures, all of them making brief appearances in the media from time to time, with no great success.
There lies the army’s great dilemma: There is no one to take over. And so they keep changing the schedule they had set immediately after seizing power. Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council, had declared at first that the army did not want to rule and would hand over the governing of the country to civil institutions as soon as a parliament was elected, which would happen within six months. Elections were therefore due to be held in September.
Observers felt that the army was getting closer to the Muslim Brotherhood and was hoping that its Freedom and Justice party, together with what was left of the former ruling party, would mold the new regime. Minor changes were made to the constitution; in a referendum held on March 19, the Brothers and members of the former ruling party were in favor, while all the secular parties rallied against the changes.
The “yes” advocates garnered 70 percent of the votes.
It soon became clear that the army was interested first and foremost in safeguarding its own interests, and they are many. A secular, democratic regime – if such a thing could be attained – might very well start investigating the army and its close links to Mubarak’s regime, exposing widespread corruption and leading to the arrest and prosecution of a number of high ranking officers.
An estimated third of the economy of the country is in the hands of army officers, some retired, some not.
Soon frustrated crowds returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square after the Friday prayers in an effort to get the Supreme Council to change its ways.
They met with little success.
Anarchy was quietly taking over. The army postponed the elections and issued harsh decrees forbidding strikes and demonstrations “detrimental to public order,” arrested a number of protesters and tried them in military courts.
Following the assault on the Israeli Embassy on September 9, the army went one step further and reinstated the infamous emergency laws it had sworn to abolish. The rift between the Supreme Council and the secular political forces as well as the protesters was getting worse, while the Muslim Brothers gave their reluctant support to the army in the hope that parliamentary elections would be held as soon as possible and that they would make significant gains which would enable them to have a decisive influence on the drafting of the new constitution.
Bending to the inevitable, the Supreme Council published a new electoral timetable; parliamentary elections would begin on November 28. However, a new electoral law was also announced.
It immediately drew fire from all sides. At issue was a disposition keeping one-third of the seats for “workers and peasants” – a leftover from the old constitution where it was used to appoint government supporters to the parliament. All parties also opposed Article 5, which allowed candidates to run as independents – that is, without being members of any party – and was widely considered to be meant to allow members of the banned former ruling party to be candidates.
In fact, the parties demanded that all members of that party be banned from public office for a minimum of five years. The electoral law was duly amended by the caretaker government and now has to be accepted by the Supreme Council.
Meanwhile, the Friday demonstrations went on, albeit with fewer and fewer protesters, and they began targeting the Supreme Council, accusing it of having stopped the revolution: There have been no reforms, economic or social, and millions of Egyptians are feeling the pinch.
Last Friday, only a few hundred showed up. The secular parties and the Brotherhood were notably absent, the army having made an all-out effort to come to some form of understanding with these forces. In a recent meeting between the commander-inchief of the army and the delegates of 13 political parties, a timetable was set for the elections and the transfer of power to civil institutions.
Voting for the lower house – magliss elshaab – will start on November 28 and end on January 4 (the country being divided in three huge electoral districts where voting is carried out consecutively). At the end of January elections for the upper house – magliss ashura – will begin and will be completed by late February. In early April both houses will convene and set up a 100-member committee to draft a constitution within six months. That constitution will be submitted to the people in a referendum. If it is accepted, presidential elections will be held within two months. Then, and only then, will the army return to the barracks.
Even should this cumbersome process go through without a hitch, which is doubtful, the army will be in charge at least until the end of 2012 – with endless opportunities for crises and even violent flareups.
Outrage and criticism were swift to follow. Even the parties whose delegates had been present at the meeting and had agreed to it condemned the plan. Egyptian political commentators are convinced that the intentions of the army are threefold: Let the bitterly divided parties squabble and argue between themselves, show them up to the public as being weak and ineffective, and groom a presidential candidate who has the support of the army.
Tantawi denied the allegations and declared that the rumors were baseless.
It has also been said that the army wants to stay in power to keep a tight rein on the trial of Mubarak, and prevent that trial from exploring the functioning of the army before – and after – the start of the revolution.
Most presidential candidates are also claiming that the electoral process will last too long, endangering the country’s stability.
They want the presidential election to be held in April, after the newly elected parliament takes office; the army would then have to relinquish its power and let the new civilian institutions draft the constitution without its supervision.
The Muslim Brothers have said that they will not allow the army to have its say in the drafting of the constitution.
It has been suggested that the army wants to supervise the drafting of the constitution not out of lofty political ideals but to ensure that it is granted a special, independent status so that officers will be only tried by military courts – in other words, that the army emerges unscathed from the fall of the Mubarak regime.
The effort will not necessarily be crowned with success.
The very notion of “independent status” is unclear; in a democratic regime the army is under the supervision of elected civilian institutions.
Meanwhile the economy is going from bad to worse, with one minister going as far as to say that the country is on the brink of bankruptcy. Egypt is negotiating with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the hope of getting help; it has hinted that it might renew its dialogue with the International Monetary Fund (which had conditioned help on reforms).
With no steady hand on the helm, Egypt is sailing into dangerously uncharted waters.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.